IBM and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer have formed a collaboration to accelerate drug discovery in “immuno-oncology” using the computer giant’s Watson artificial intelligence system to aid a potentially promising new area for cancer research.
Immunotherapy is an approach that uses the immune system to fight diseases, unlike chemotherapy, which kills cancer cells. Immunotherapy works on cells in the immune system to combat cancer.
By partnering with IBM’s Watson for Drug Discovery, Pfizer hopes to more quickly analyze and test hypotheses from “massive volumes of disparate data sources” that include more than 30 million sources of laboratory and data reports as well as medical literature. Watson will also be able to combine such a massive database with Pfizer’s own proprietary research information.
“Drug hunting and treatment development is a vast task in immune-oncology,” Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer ‘s president of worldwide research and development, said in an interview. “I read hundreds of papers over a few months, but I cannot read millions like Watson can.”
Without the cognitive computing and artificial intelligence IBM Watson brings to the table, Dolsten compared drug discovery and developing hypotheses as trying to find three trees that share similarities in a large forest.
“You could spend a lifetime looking for the trees that share the similarities,” Dolsten said. “The cognitive computing looks for patterns.”
Pfizer decided to collaborate with Watson after a potential treatment target emerged during a pilot program in the last year and a half, Dolsten said.
Pfizer was working on two products “outside of cancer” and fed information about that research into Watson, which later suggested a “very strong combination outcome” as a possible cancer treatment. Meanwhile, Pfizer’s own drug research team suggested a similar combination, giving the drug maker’s research team confidence it was headed in the right direction. “We’re now trying to validate it in animals,” Dolsten said in an interview. He wouldn’t disclose the product or when it may reach human trials.
Cancer is one of the world’s leading causes of death and it’s a rapidly changing field requiring a single researcher to look at several hundred pieces of medical research in a given year. Researchers and scientists “need access to R&D tools that can help them efficiently navigate the opportunities and challenges presented by the explosion of data globally,” said Lauren O’Donnell, IBM Watson Health’s vice president of life sciences.
The drug discovery collaboration is the latest of IBM’s expansion into healthcare. IBM Watson already has other partnerships with companies like CVS to bring better care coordination and more personalize care to pharmacy customers. IBM Watson also has collaborations with Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson and Apple to link health care companies to a new cloud-based architecture.